Wing Commander Lionel Cohen – The Man with a Hundred Lives [1]

By Martin Sugarman

(Archivist, British Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women – AJEX  - Jewish Military Museum, London)


Wing Commander Lionel Frederick William Cohen, DSO, MC (World War I), DFC (World War II) was known as 'Sos' or sausage to all who knew him, and Evergreen to all his RAF comrades. He was born at Tankerville House, Tankerville Terrace, Newcastle-upon-Tyne on June 7th 1875, son of the distinguished Anglo-Jewish family of Andrew J F Cohen, shipowner, and was one of six brothers and five sisters all of whom attended the Singleton House Primary School.

In the 1880s the family moved to Highbury New Park in North London after the father died, and at 14 years old Lionel was sent to work at Lewison's (General Merchants) in Charterhouse Square, Aldersgate, in the City. Lionel was always an adventurous and restless boy, and was soon bored with his life as a clerk. Without a word to his family, whilst walking past a recruiting office in Trafalgar Square, he enlisted for 12 years and 2 years Boys Service, in the Royal Marines Light Infantry, and was shipped off to Deal barracks near Dover as 729371 Marine Cohen.

After many experiences as a soldier for three months, and thoroughly enjoying the life of drill, musketry, bayonet instruction and boxing, he was finally tracked down by the police, and his mother and uncle Jacob arrived and bought him out for £20.

Outraged  at such behaviour, the family sent Lionel to work for his uncle Harry Freeman Cohen in Johannesburg, and he sailed to South Africa on the 'Pretoria Castle', where he was given work again as a clerk. Dissatisfied still, he left this job too and after a short time as a hotel waiter, he enlisted, now penniless, as a guard in the mines on the J'Burg Reef. He was 17 years old.

Young Lionel soon heard of the great happenings further north as the British Imperialists were surging ever outwards to take more and more control of the Southern African Territories. So, Sos joined up as a volunteer with F C Selous and Dr Jamieson in the campaign against Chief Lobengula's impis of Matebele tribesmen, centred on the royal kraal at Bulawayo. His column, under Major Wilson, left Fort Victoria to join up with the Salisbury column at Iron Mine Hill [2]. In Oct 1893, as a Trooper aged just 18 years and the youngest serving, he took part in the battle of The Shangani River. Sos was in number 5 troop commanded by Captain Delamore, and they were ordered to fix bayonets and engage the enemy in the bush. A Jewish friend from Manchester whom he had met, named Walters, was killed right alongside him in the fighting. The column chaplain asked Sos to conduct the Jewish burial service.

Conditions were extremely harsh – difficult climate, poor communications, poor food and medical supplies and a high mortality rate among the all important horses. But by December, the Matebeleland campaign was over and Sos, now suffering from malaria, returned south to his uncle and worked for him as a mine manager for the next 5 years. Yet he again became restless and left once more, this time to work in Delagoa Bay in Portugese East Africa (now Mozambique), first as a butcher and then as a mine recruiting agent. In one incident he barely survived being bitten by a deadly green mamba snake while asleep; in another he narrowly missed being executed for treason by the Portugese authorities, when he was mistaken for a rebel leader who fitted his description. He also had the dubious pleasure of meeting Roger Casement who was the British Consul General in the capital of Lourenco Marques (now Maputo), later shot in World War I for treason with Germany.

In October 1899, the Boer War began and because of his experience of the Bush and knowledge of the people, Sos was asked by the British Consul in Mozambique to act as a special force commander operating behind enemy lines. He was to take about hundred askaris and patrol the Mozambique frontier to prevent gun running to the Boers by sympathising countries like Germany and Holland, as well as intercepting Boer messengers operating from Portugese neutral territory. As an Allied nation, he would report to the Portugese authorities, who would pass information on to British Field Intelligence.

Living rough for months on end, Sos and his men had many skirmishes with the Boers, on one occasion arresting two German spies masquerading as prospectors, and on another eliminating a Boer Commando. The Boer General Beyers swore he would catch Sos and bury him in an ant-hill covered with honey [3] – but he was never captured, of course.

When the war ended, Sos returned to civilian life, inheriting a  newspaper (The Rand Daily Mail)  with his brother Jack, from his uncle Harry. They soon sold it, however, and Sos went into the stock exchange. In 1903 he ventured in a balloon with Spelterini, daring the flyer to go as high as he could. During the ascent over the Drakensberg mountains, the gas release cord broke and they were in danger of freezing. Sos climbed out of the basket onto the rigging and in the most perilous conditions, retrieved the cord. 'Now pull the plug and lets go home', he said. And so they did.

Sos was not, however,  successful in his business dealings and lost his money speculating ; instead he went to work as a mining foreman, almost losing his life in a mining accident which left eighteen dead around him.

A week later World War I began.

Lionel joined the 1st South African Horse ( 'B' Squad,1st Mounted Brigade) in Pretoria as a 2nd Lieutenant in 1915 [4], now embarking on his third war. He was a troop commander serving under General Van Deventer, a Boer officer, and would be up against the formidable German soldier General Von Lettow-Vorbeck.

Sailing to Mombassa and thence riding overland to Nairobi, Lionel's brigade moved south into German East Africa to harass the Germans. His first action was at Kahe near the Pangane river, followed on April 3rd by the attack on Lol Kisale hill near Arusha. With his batman – a fellow Geordie – in attendance, Sos alone with  his troop managed to convince three German officers with three machine guns and 430 askaris, that they were surrounded, forcing them to surrender the hilltop post.

He was later ordered to take his troop behind the lines to act as scouts for the British main force. Now a temporary captain ('Special Service') [5], he was involved in many skirmishes with Von Lettow's men, sending back valuable information to Van Deventer. He enjoyed such work because he was his own master and was able to use his own initiative.

In May 1916 he was detailed to prepare an airstrip for eight Royal Navy Air Service (RNAS) aircraft which were to join them and act as Reconnaissance. Sos immediately volunteered on June 7th 1916 as an Observer and was seconded to the RNAS No. 7 Squadron, serving as No 2 to Ft Lt Leslie Brown. He flew in BE2C's and Voisins and was involved in several skirmishes and crash landings as well as anti-aircraft and artillery attacks from the Germans, until his transfer out on 21st Feb 1917. In his report, East African Air Commander Eric R C Nanson described Sos as a 'very capable and zealous officer'. [6]

Gradually, Von Lettow retreated into Mozambique and Sos was ordered to British Field Intelligence Force from 21/2/1917, forming his own unit called 'Co-Force' [7] with 40 askaris and one European Officer, their job to harass Von Lettow's camps and depots behind his lines. In one episode he carried out a brilliant Commando-style raid, crossing the Ruvuma river on rafts, in complete silence at night, whilst it was in full flood, and when least expected, falling upon a German post and taking 25 prisoners.

Sending the prisoners back under escort, Sos then fortified a nearby kopje (hill) and dug in to await an approaching German column under Col. Tafel, whom he had been warned was on his way to the area trying to escape into Mozambique. Hugely outnumbered by Tafel, Sos decided that the only solution was a full scale bayonet charge, before the hill was surrounded. So surprised by such impudence, and in hand to hand combat, the German force broke and ran as Sos and his men hurtled down the hill at them!

Sos continued his 'Offensive Reconnaissance' forays until his force was disbanded in late 1917, whence he was appointed liaison officer to Portugese HQ in Mozambique. During this period, a Col. Gore-Brown's unit of the Kings African Rifles was cut off and short of ammunition in the bush. The Portugese, now officially allies, refused to move, however, so Sos took his Sudanese sergeant and  a motor launch full of supplies, up the Nyamakura river to relieve them, sailing back at night to his base at Quelimane.

Unfortunately, Gore-Brown's force was attacked next day and wiped out.

For his work in East Africa, Lionel received the MC on Feb 1st 1917 (London Gazette) 'for valuable services rendered in military operations in the field' (announced in the Jewish Chronicle on Feb. 9th). He was promoted to Captain 6.1.1918, Major on 16.2.1918, and later was awarded the DSO (London Gazette 27/7/1918) [8] for 'valuable services rendered with military operations in East Africa'. He was also Mentioned in Despatches 11.10.1917 ('For meritorious service in the field'), 31.1.1919 and 8.12.1920 ('For distinguished service during operations in East Africa').

After the war, and now in his mid forties, he married Victoria Maud Shepherd in Durban in 1920 [9] and later, with their two daughters, returned to England as a stockbroker. Soon he was persuaded to return to Mozambique as  mine manager, however, on one occasion having to hunt down a man-eating lion that was terrorising a mining camp and on another, falling into an animal pit already occupied by an angry lioness! On both occasions he narrowly escaped with his life.

Eventually the mining programme failed and Sos returned to England in 1926 to live at Hill House, Slinfold in Sussex, where he farmed, too, as a hobby, also owning a race horse.

War clouds gathered in the 1930s and in 1937 he single-handedly founded the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR) from among ex-RAF, RFC and RNAS officers to help in case of war. [10] He successfully persuaded Lord Trenchard, father of the RAF, to be its President. He managed to get a Commission as a Pilot Officer (no. 72629) in the RAF in Feb.1939 and when war did break out he was aged 64 years! He served, now in his fourth war, as RAF Coastal Command Liaison Officer with the Admiralty, volunteering to take part in 70 operational flights as Observer and Air Gunner (always carrying his lucky gold sovreign with him!), in over 500 hours flying in the Atlantic (convoy escorts); Iceland (ice reconnaissance – where on one Liberator sortie, when the heating failed, he insisted on doing his stint in the turret round Bear Island, and on landing at Reykjavik, it took two crew members to prise him out of his seat!) [11]; North Africa and Spain (anti-submarine patrol), Bay of Biscay (light aircraft patrol) and over North West Europe, including a stint with the RAAF (Australians). Promoted Wing Commander, he took part in the attacks on the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau over the port of Brest on April 23rd 1941. In the same year, during a shipping attack off Norway, his aircraft was chased by three Me 110's and a Ju 88 and on another occasion, his Sunderland aircraft took part in a 4 strike attack on  U Boat over the Atlantic, and claimed it sunk. Over the North Sea on May 19th 1942 he was wounded in the head by anti-aircraft fire in the attack on the German pocket battleship 'Lutzov'. [12] His longest patrol was in a Catalina – 21.5 hours over the Atlantic in July 1941. His penultimate sortie in  a Halifax , hit by flak, resulted in a crash landing from which he walked away unscathed.

When asked why he insisted on flying he told First Sea Lord Admiral Dudley Pound, ' without practical experience I could not offer solutions to problems' and that 'it was good for morale to have senior officers sharing watches with the young air crew'.

An Air Ministry spokesman, describing Sos as 'a grand chap', announced on February 1st 1944 that for' Gallantry and devotion to duty in the execution of Air Operations' and 'setting a magnificent example to all by his untiring energy and courage', Sos was to receive the DFC, aged 69 years, and had been the oldest Aircrew member of the RAF – an unparalleled achievement in military history. He was invested by the King at Buckingham Palace in November 1944. He was also Mentioned in Despatches in 1941 and on June 2nd 1943 – making 5 times in all in Two World Wars – and was awarded the American Air Operations Medal 'in recognition of valuable service', conferred by the President of the United States (JC 15.11.46).

In recommending him for his DFC, Marshall of the RAF Sir John Slessor said, 'I have never put up a recommendation that I thought so well deserved than for old Sos in his 70th year . . . few if any Commanders can have had a junior officer with a campaign ribbon (Matabeland) won before the CO was born!'. Sos's reaction to his award was that he accepted it 'for those incredible youngsters of Coastal Command with whom I fly. I have been sufficiently honoured simply by being allowed to keep such company. . . they are the salt of the earth'.

In addition to all this, his daughter Aileen Broadbent was a Senior Company Commander in the ATS and ATS Provost Marshall for Scotland, daughter Elizabeth a Section Officer in the WAAF, and his wife on the HQ Staff of the WVS in London!

Sos Cohen died in August 1960 aged 85 years (announced in the Jewish Chronicle on Sept. 2nd). He never denied his Jewish roots and never changed his name; whether he ever suffered from this we will never know. He was cremated at Balcombe Road crematorium in Crawley on Sept. 1st and his ashes scattered in an area known as 'The Glade' [13]. In correspondence with the author, Sos's son-in-law Christopher Buckle (a Deputy Lieutenant of the County of Sussex), stated that as Lionel Cohen was not survived by any Jewish relatives, (including grandchildren Ann and Susan Buckle) and at the request of his widow, Sos's cremation was private with no memorial service at all. His daughters (one now deceased) were educated at a convent school.

His obituary pointed out his serving in all three Armed Services, and his nickname as 'the man with a hundred lives'. He was a member of the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women (AJEX) and took part in many of its Annual Parades at The Cenotaph in the Wreath Party. He was also a Life Member of the RAF Association, RAF Club and RAFVR Club as well as the Matabele Campaign Society. He returned only once to Africa, in 1945, to receive the Freedom of the City of Bulawayo [14]. As the SS Athlone Castle approached Durban, the Captain ran up the Rhodesian ensign in Sos's honour – the first time it had ever been flown at sea. [15]

Other Sources

1. London Gazette – Feb 1st 1917, July 27th,1918, Jan. 1st 1941, 2nd June 1943, Feb 1st 1944, Oct. 15th 1946.

2. Jewish Chronicle – issues of 9/2/1917, 2/8/1918, 4/6/43 ,4/2/1944, 10/11/1944 and 2/9/1960

3. Undated Jewish Chronicle review, 1952

4. Thanks to Aumie and Michael Shapiro of 'Springboard' Productions, The RAF Museum in Hendon, RAF Innsworth (Gloucester) and Mr C Buckle (son-in-law of Sos), for all their help.

5. Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women (AJEX), Military Museum Archives, North London.

NB Lionel Cohen's twelve military decorations were as follows:

DSO, MC, (WW1) DFC (WW2), Matabeleland Campaign Medal, Queen's South Africa Medal (Boer War), 1914-15 Star, War Medal, Victory Medal with MiD (WW1), 1939-45 Star, Defence Medal, War Medal with MiD , American Air Medal (WW2).

Footnotes

1. The bulk of this article was borrowed from the book “The Crowded Hours”, A Richardson, pub. by Max Parrish, 1952.

2. Cohen archive at the West Sussex County Archives, Chichester

3. Cohen archive

4. South African Defence Force Archives for WW1 (SADFA)

5. SADFA

6. Cohen archive

7. SADFA

8. Directory of the DSO, Imperial War Museum Library

9. The Chronicle, Bulawayo, Oct 25th 1947, Cohen archive

10. Cohen archive

11. “Horsham - The War Years”, C White, West Sussex County Archives 1995

12. “Guns in the Sky” C Bowyer, Corgi, 1979

13. Records of the Worthing Crematorium, Sussex

14. International News Agency Photograph, Cohen archive, dated 4.11.49

15. Cohen archive


Source: Martin Sugerman, Reprinted with Permission